Negative Capability - a Powerful Tool to Navigate Ambiguity

Yulia Pellegrin

Last year, my EMC peers and I delivered two sessions for our INSEAD alumni community where we explored the concept of negative capability. 

This idea was introduced by John Keats in 1817. He described it as a state in which a person is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. It is a relevant and powerful skill - especially in a current context.

Many of us are constantly dealing with ambiguity, managing crisis responses or under constant pressure from our stakeholders to make decisions and demonstrate performance.

And this is all good and expected. However, most things we have learnt about leadership are about positive capabilities - being able to make a decision, take a swift action, resolve a problem, communicate promptly etc.

But there are times, especially in crisis, when we may not know what to do, or when we even question our knowledge and abilities. We feel as if we are being pushed to our boundaries - we can’t rely on our previous experience, we may not have adequate resources or trusted relationships (yet). 

So instead of performing a defensive action which may not be relevant to the task or problem, you can consider applying negative capability or ‘reflective inaction’. 

Instead of jumping into doing something, take a pause, allow some space and wait to see what will emerge. Perhaps new ideas and insights will appear. Relationships will evolve. Additional resources may become available. Taking a reflective pause may help you to create a mental and emotional space that is necessary to get unstuck and move forward. 

I am sure that many of us have already practiced negative capability in our life. And that’s what we discussed and explored together during our reflection sessions. If you would like to run a similar session for your leadership teams, we will be happy to deliver a complimentary workshop for your organisation. Please reach out to us at our page INSEAD EMC Coaching Collective.

This post was originally published as a LinkedIn article.